Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Crimea River

(Yes, yes, I know Ben Stein came up with this title long before I did, but it was too good not to steal. Moving on...)

Apropos of Russia's armed conquest of the Crimean Peninsula last month, American journalists have mainly been asking rather pointless questions, such as A) is this President Obama's fault? and B) what does John McCain think? Students of Russian history, to their credit, have been using their expertise to make much more interesting inquiries, viz.:

1) Why, if the Crimea was historically part of Russia, did Nikita Khruschchev give it to Ukraine in 1954? Mainstream publications (such as TIME Magazine) insist this was a meaningless gesture of inter-provincial solidarity in the old Soviet Union, but Mark Kramer of the Wilson Center finds a more pragmatic motive behind the decision. Ukraine had an unpleasant relationship with the larger Soviet Union, dating back to the Russian Civil War and the famine of the 1930s, and many Ukrainians had rebelled against the Soviet government during the Second World War. Khrushchev had been one of Ukraine's governors in the 1940s and wanted to strengthen Soviet Russia's hold on the wayward republic, and figured the best way to do so was to increase its ethnic Russian population, just as Stalin had done with the Baltic states in the 1940s. Crimea's population was almost entirely Russian, so adding it to Ukraine increased the republic's Russian population, and its putative loyalty to Moscow, without necessitating a big population transfer.

2) Did religion play any role in Putin's decision to invade? The answer here appears to be "Yes, a large one," because the Crimea enjoys outsized importance in the Russian Orthodox Church, an institution Putin has been trying to strengthen. The Orthodox Church has historically been joined at the hip with the Russian state, and Mara Kozelsky observes that this process began in the Crimea in the tenth century CE, when Vladimir the Rus was baptized as an Orthodox Christian and married the Byzantine emperor's sister. Crimea had also been the refuge of the early Christian pope Clement, and in commemoration of both events the Church established monasteries in and pilgrimages to Crimea, the "Russian Athos," during the Romanov era. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church began restoring monuments and churches located at the Crimean holy sites, and doubtless the current Patriarch - and devout Russians - are pleased that this Black-Sea Holy Land has been restored to the Rodina.

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